Friday, 13 November 2015

Gilbert Agyare has a story: Part III

"He told me to forget about the word 'sight' " 

[All photos were taken by Kennedy Danso, a friend and course mate also in Legon Hall, who is a budding photographer]

GILBERT WOKE UP in a hospital room at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi. His eye – “You know, it’s like an egg, and it got broken,” he said – was operated on. Twice.

After the second surgery, the doctor turned up by his bedside and cast a shroud of gloom on his life. His right eye was gone, the doctor announced, and the left would follow suit soon. Apparently, when one eye fails, the pressure the other one has to bear causes it to deteriorate overtime, eventually failing too. That stone Amos threw had marked a slippery slope, a ruthless domino effect, that was to take Gilbert’s sight from him in the long term.

“He told me to forget about the word “sight”,” Gilbert said. “That I should forget about ever seeing the world again and rather concentrate on my books and on becoming the best I can be. He also told me to learn about blind living to enable me get somewhere in life.”

The ensuing months of being one-eyed were pain laden. Gilbert would shuttle between Kumasi and Sunyani regularly for treatment. He was given tonnes of drugs, but the pain in that dead right eye just wouldn’t flee. “Anytime the sun came up, my eyes would start aching badly and I would start having discharges,” he said. “I remember lying face-down on the floor sometimes and pressing my eye against the floor just so I could cool off the burning sensation. It was very discomforting.”

This left him confined indoors, cut off from the outside world – a situation that curtailed a chunk of his childhood normalities. He had to pull out of school, losing friends in the process. All this, while his other eye steadily slumped, leaving him down in the dumps. Those were difficult times, but Gilbert had his family to protect him from the threat of despair. “Normally when you get into such situations, before you will feel sad, one of the factors that contributes immensely is how the people close to you, your family, handle it,” he explained. “When the family decides to treat you differently, that’s when you feel sad. But when they decide to treat you the same way, there won’t be problems. My family didn’t change.” And that was critical.

But, even more critical was the fact that Gilbert, like now, could fall on an admirable strength of character, a powerful resilience that seems to shine from the deepest depths of his nature. And, given the scale of what he went through, this fortitude seemed God-sent, appropriate, a small trace of justice and meaning. It helped him cope and gave him hope - especially when the other eye checked out of functioning two years after the stone incident.

Gilbert remembers that fateful day; the day the last remnants of sight in his eyes fled forever.


ONE MORNING in 2004, Gilbert woke up and suddenly felt the world blank out. He panicked. His mother rushed into his room and did something that she’d done severally since her son lost his right eye.

As a means of checking the quality of his eye, the state of it, Gilbert’s mum had been visiting his room, holding up a number of her fingers for her son to call out the exact numbers. Sometimes, she’d use colours. She did it regularly.

That day, she repeated it and the results, as expected, were heartbreaking. Statistics say that one person becomes blind worldwide every five seconds. Gilbert’s time was up. He was to join a world blind community that is now estimated by the World Health Organization to be around 39 million. “She put up a colour and I couldn’t tell which colour it was,” Gilbert remembered. “That was how we both knew it was done.”

Of course, they both knew that that moment would come one day, but when it came, it was difficult. You can never be too ready for things like that, no matter the amount of prior knowledge. “I remember her saying ‘I don’t know what to do! This is so strange. This is something so strange in my life’” Gilbert recalled. “She had somehow attributed my whole ordeal to superstition; she thought maybe Amos had been sent by some evil spirit to come and ruin my life. And so, for instance, she always made us go to pastors for help. I went through the hands of many pastors, all to no avail. One day, I told her ‘We can’t do anything about it because my situation is physical’. I told her if God would heal me, then that was fine, but I did not believe in those pastors. I did not believe that they could do something about it. It got to a point I told her I wouldn’t go to see them again. I told her if she would go on my behalf then fine, but I myself wouldn’t go anymore.”

Gilbert admitted that he was kid who “didn’t know or understand much during those times,” but he distinctly remembered the fact that he accepted his reality early, with very little self-pity or brooding. “There was pain, but I rarely remember being sad or depressed. Naturally, I’m not an emotional person,” he said. Then, he continued, with the benefit of hindsight: “Besides, when you get into certain situations and you don’t accept the fact that currently, that’s the situation in which you find yourself, you can’t work towards solving that situation,” he explained. “Because if you go to Rome, you have to do what the Romans do. When you become blind, first of all you have to accept the fact that now, you can’t see. No matter what you do, you cannot fix yourself into your old situation. That’s where you are now.”

This rare stoic mindset came in handy at a time when he had to start a new life; when he had to go through intensive orientation for the visually impaired; when he had to to live without sight. “When you’re going through that process, you deduce certain ways of doing your things. Your brain has to work faster than before. You have to adapt,” he said.

Gilbert started learning about the ways of the blind at the primary division of Ghana National Secondary School. That school, an all-inclusive institution (opportunities for the physically challenged), was in Cape Coast - where his family migrated to from Sunyani sometime after the stone accident. 

He later continued his orientation at the well-known Akropong School For The Blind in the Eastern Region. After two years at that school, Gilbert successfully passed his Basic Education Certificate Examination and gained admission to the Okuapeman Senior High School, also in the East.

Spurred on by a steely resolve to solve problems, Gilbert adapted fast in his blind training. By the time he got to Senior High School, his intelligence, coupled with his ever- stubborn willingness not to be weighed down, had seen him make a great deal of progress. He was one of about 30 blind students among over 3000 sighted ones at Okuapeman. 

“When I was at Okuapeman, I was not using a white cane,” he said. 

A white cane is the stick blind people use to survey their paths. 

“I used to walk alone and do everything on my own. When you saw me walking around you couldn’t even tell that I was blind.”

Of course, that ease of navigation stemmed from a familiarity with his environment – something that took time and conscientious effort to achieve. “The way I would even go past gutters, you wouldn’t believe it,” he laughed. “I think blind people live by flashbacks,” he explained. “Always, we commit the paths we take and the places we go into memory so we can do it alone without help or with minimal help the next time.”

This, he reckoned, has significantly sharpened his memory. “My memory has become stronger. I’ve even observed that those who are totally blind are more intelligent than partially blind people, especially in academics, because of the memory factor. Due to the fact that you can’t see anything, the mind is always working overtime. What it means is that the function of the eye has been added to the memory. The mind is doing double work.”

Gilbert studied Government, History, Literature and Akuapem Twi as his electives at Okuapeman. He recalled walking up to the blackboard at times, when teachers were not in class, to teach his colleagues. During his time there, he attained intense popularity, not least because of his gregarious nature. 

He gain notoriety, too, for being someone who always fought for his rights. He was alert and outspoken, difficult to subdue or outwit. People often say blind people are sensitive about their rights because not being able to see triggers an inevitable paranoia, especially given the tendency of humans to be deceptive and exploitative. “I remember sometimes when I’d get to the dining hall and I’d ask if there was a vacancy on a table I wanted to sit on. The people on it, knowing very well that there were vacancies, would say no, just because they didn’t want me sitting by them. I could sense when the table was empty, and also, when they were lying. It got to a time I would get there and I wouldn't even ask and I’d sit. They couldn’t share the food without giving me. Naah, it was impossible,” he said, shaking his head. “When you fight for your rights too much, people see you as arrogant, but that's okay because that's their opinion anyway. I always fight for my rights because when you are quiet, people will take you for granted."


YEARS LATER, and after passing his WASSCE with distinction, Gilbert gained admission into the University of Ghana. He has been here for a few weeks. Observing him, it is easy to notice that, 13 years after his sight got slighted by a sling and a stone, he seems to have moved on, to have mastered the art of seeing without seeing. Braille is a breeze for him. He uses a laptop that has an audio software that guides him. He is able to use a phone – “I’m able to search for contacts by typing in the names because I know the keypad very well. When someone calls, I answer and try and make out the person’s voice.”

Gilbert has chosen not to be vindictive towards Amos, the boy behind that fateful stone-throw. He spoke of how, despite the fact that his mother antagonized Amos, he forgave him long ago and decided it was futile accommodating bitterness. There was no time, really, because he was busy trying to figure out how to overcome the storm of challenges that his loss of sight heaved on his life. “There is no bad blood,” he said. “There was one time when we went back visiting Sunyani in 2010. When we got there he was sent for to come see me after all those years, but he did not come,” he recalled. “I don’t know if he still felt guilty or it was deliberate. But there are no issues. What’s done is done.”

Gilbert said he is always looking forward and never looking back. “If I ever go back (to seeing again) that’s fine. If I don’t, it’s fine too,” he said with a grin. Basically, he does not want to labour his mind or vex his spirit with wishful thinking or chronic moping, because he genuinely feels in his heart that he can have a great life regardless. “My blindness is not something that can serve as a hindrance in my life. For me, anything that I want to achieve, I think I can achieve it without sight. If it were to be that the losing of it has been an obstacle or a restriction in my life, then that would have been a different case. I rather want to think about how I will move forward in life than to think about my eye. Because, what’s the point?”

Gilbert is excited about life in Legon. He said he is yet to fully acquaint himself with the whole of campus. “I’m new here and my environment is relatively alien. I’ve not fully surveyed this campus – and it’s a big campus too. For instance, the road leading to NNB (a lecture hall south of campus) is very complex and I’m always thinking about how to keep it in my mind and do it myself.  But you see, this is only my first semester. There is time and there is hope. I remember when you guys first met me, Andre asked me if Azamati (a very popular level 400 blind student) was partially blind or totally blind.  You see, he has been here for close to four years and so knows all the corners. I will get there once a bit of time passes because I’m determined. Once I get into my stride there will be nowhere I wouldn’t be able to go. As time goes on I will become a pioneer on campus. I’m still learning. I know, for instance, that after you exit the Southern gate, the likes of Sarbah Hall and CC (Central Cafeteria) are to your left.  And once you pass right you go to the Language center – where you took me the last time. You’ll see; by the time we get to second semester, you'll spot me walking around everywhere alone.”

The problem, though, is that Gilbert can never truly do things fully alone, though his smartness and outlandish determination has seen him significantly cut down the rate at which he depends on other people. I told Gilbert that I’ve always imagined that one of the biggest problems about being blind would be the loss of total self-dependence. That is, I’ve always felt that blind people – no matter how experienced they are – always need some degree of help, and that might feel terribly limiting. Gilbert agreed. He admitted that having to depend on people was one of the hardest things he had to deal with in the beginning. “There were times when I needed something very urgently and I couldn’t go get it and so had to ask for help. The people I’d ask would drag their feet. I would then remember my old state and think: If I still had sight, I would have gone there myself, I would have gotten this stuff on my own without seeking for any assistance.”

The problem with being eternally confined to depending on people on the daily is that people are diverse in social attitude and aptitude. Some are nice, others plain cold and rude. Gilbert, who admitted that he never hesitates to seek help, said: “There are some people when you want to seek help from them, the kind of attitude they would show eh…the horrible nature of their attitude makes you sometimes feel sad. Look at it this way; it’s like you having money in the past and not having it anymore. You always remember your hey days and go: 'Ah, in those days when I used to have money I would have sorted myself out without having to go through all of this'. It’s the same with having sight once upon a time and not having it anymore.”

Gilbert has met all manner of people in his quotidian routine of asking for help. “There are some people too, when they meet you, you wouldn’t even have to ask for help and they’d come closer to offer assistance. They’ll go, ‘oh, hello, do you need some help?’ But other people will see you going straight into a gutter and just look at you till you fall before they'll tell you ‘sorry’.”

He recounted an anecdote from the day Andre and I met him. “That day, I was hungry, but no one was around for me to send. And even, you can’t get up and send anyone just like that. So I said ‘lemme go’. I took my white cane and started moving. I had passed through the Southern Gate about two times so I had studied the place and pictured it in my mind. That morning we’d gone for a lecture at the Central Cafeteria – and I had been told CC is very close to Sarbah Hall. So I had an idea. Slowly, I kept moving and asking. I remember asking a certain lady who said: “Oh, Go forward.” Just like that. She didn’t even say “Oh, let me help you.” She just said, ‘Go forward’”

Was the lady not considerate enough to notice he was blind and thus needed help? Gilbert dismissed any attempt at giving her the benefit of the doubt. He thought it was a no brainer. “If someone sees you and you are blind, the person should see. You don’t need a DNA test to ascertain it!”

“I’ve heard a good amount of derogatory comments,” Gilbert continued. “I’ve had people comment sarcastically; “Na ono nso, ooko hen?” ['He, too, where is he going?’, in a mocking and condescending tone] when they see me struggling. Sometimes, I can feel deep within me that people are staring. There are some people, too, when they see a visually impaired person or a person with disability they automatically feel superior to them; they feel they are better.”

But Gilbert is not worried about cruelty he is subjected to at times. He chooses to be a relentless optimist. “Back in SHS, I did not have anyone who helped me so when I came into this University and I wasn’t assigned any help, it wasn’t anything new to me. I’ve been independent since I can remember. I still go by my business as usual. I don’t feel segregated or discriminated against: primarily because whenever you feel that way, your attitude also changes - because you always want people to help you. If you meet someone and the person is willing to help, you have to accept. But if the person is not, you don’t have to force it because it’s voluntary and not compulsory. People are here for their own duties and they have their own business to take care of so you have to understand. I don’t feel resented or offended just because I don’t get people to help me. Not at all.”

Help or no help, Gilbert has a spirit of fearlessness that drives him to get up and get doing, even when he has no idea of the location of the place he’s going. “I will never be in a situation where I want to go somewhere and I won’t go because I don’t have help,” he said.  “No. Even if my destination is in the bush I will still go there. I will manage and struggle and before I realize I will be there. When I fall in a gutter I will get back up and take it as a lesson; no problem at all. In the end, I know when I go there I will not die; that I will definitely come back.” 

This spunk, though, is not infinite – it has a limit. Gilbert said that there is one thing he will never risk doing without help: crossing a road. “Some roads are large and always busy and when you joke, you won’t go scot free,” he said, his voice burdened with grave emphasis. "I’ve promised myself never to risk it.  Because you don’t know the misfortune that could happen – and I’ve not achieved what I want to achieve in life too."

Those last words were uttered with utter bottle, and it was infectious. Gilbert maintains a fiery fidelity with a belief that he will be great in future. It probably offers a degree of explanation for his striking strength of spirit. “You know, there are people who can see your fortunes; where you’ll get to in life, what you can be. I’ve been told by several people, in the form of prophesies, that I’ll be a famous person; someone who will occupy a big position. All the time, I keep feeling that that thing is there waiting for me. I always sense that there is something ahead of me, something I’ve not yet achieved, so therefore I’m always working diligently towards that," he said.

I asked Gilbert a question that in my heart felt very difficult, but in my curiosity-driven head felt necessary. Does the fact that he will never be able to literally see the results of his anticipated greatness ever worry him? His answer was selfless and sagacious. “It doesn’t bother me because even if I don’t see, my generation will see. There are times when what you will do, you yourself won’t benefit from it. Other people will come and benefit. So when people come after me and they find out that there was someone called Gilbert who occupied this position or who did this; that one alone is a plus.”

We had reached a point in conversation where I wanted Gilbert to let me into the experience of being blind. I wanted to understand the state in which he’s been for the past 13 years. What do blind people see? Darkness? White light? Is there tangible substance to their vision, or its all blank? How does it all work?

I shut my eyes and told him that all I could see  - which is not even technically possible, if you think about it, because one can’t see with closed eyes – was a darkness that was pitch black, with very minute violet coloured dots scattered across. “Is it the same for you?” I asked. He laughed as I struggled to explain, as I grappled with the words to carry my point across. “Ok,” he began. “You see, when you are blind, people have this perception that you are in darkness, but its not true,” he explained. “How are you in darkness when you are imagining your surroundings all the time?”

“Besides, you can feel things. When it is day, you can feel it. When it is night, you can too. When I'm going somewhere and there’s a building, I can feel it…I can feel that there is something huge in front of me. When there is someone in front of me, too, I can feel the person’s presence, just that I won’t be able to tell who it is, unless I catch a whiff of their perfume or natural scent. You know people have natural scents right?” he continued.

I looked at my phone and realized that we had been speaking for just over an hour.  Andre and I were due to attend a Human Resource Management (under Political Science) lecture at 3.30pm and it was almost 3, and so we said our goodbyes to Gilbert, who in turn said he was going to take a nap as he had no lecture to attend for the rest of the day. I told him I hoped to start writing a long-form feature on him soon. He was excited. “That’s great,” he said, his face creased with a heartwarming beam. “I’m ready to give you any information you need to make it a great article. I enjoyed this conversation.”

As Andre and I angled into the corridor just outside of Gilbert’s room, we both looked at each other momentarily, without saying a word, and continued walking. Gilbert’s story had had us dumbfounded.

“Life!” I finally managed to say.

“Oh chale!” he responded, shaking his head.



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